How do you price the priceless?

When a nation decides to count assets as well as incomes, it has to face some difficult questions.

The Financial Times has a report today on the efforts of the Treasury to publish the "whole-of-government accounts" for the first time. The usual practice for governments is to focus on income and outgoings, paying little heed to their assets and liabilities, but the fate of Greece put an end to that practice.

The problem with totting up everything a government owns is that their portfolio is rather different from that of, say, Barclays or John Lewis. They own things like Stonehenge:

Although unthinkable in practice, it would in theory be possible to price the site as if it were a business put up for sale, Mr Thurley [the head of English Heritage] admits. More than 1m people visit each year, with adults paying £7.50 each. “If we were to put Stonehenge on the market, we would probably sell it for a very large sum of money,” he says.

But applying a theme-park template would hardly have done justice to the ancient mystery of the stones, nor to English Heritage’s stewardship role. The fact that Stonehenge would have been ultimately lumped into an accounting category called “furniture, fittings and other” in the whole of government accounts would only have added insult to injury.

In the end, English Heritage kept Stonehenge and the vast majority of its treasures off the UK’s balance sheet by arguing that the cost of carrying out the valuation would have been out of all proportion to the benefits of disclosure. A similar approach has been taken by big museums and galleries, not to mention the Ministry of Defence, which declined to put a price tag on historical items such as the Enigma Machine, the second world war code-breaking device.

Thurley accepts that would be some benefits to English Heritage for valuing their less archaeological properties, since it would allow them to compare their performance against listed property management companies. It is hard to think of an acceptable use of valuing Stonehenge, though; the first chancellor to put the site up as collateral for a loan would probably be the last as well.

A real investment property; could do with some renovation. Credit: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Brexit campaign publishes private phone numbers of rival MPs

Leave.EU hate the EU and hate Vote Leave who also hate the EU. What could go wrong?

Remember Leave.EU? Not to be confused with Vote Leave, which is the pro-Brexit group led by one of the former mayors with Hitler tourettes, or with Grassroots Out, which was the group with the neon green ties, or with UKIP. Even though Grassroots Out, UKIP and Leave.EU are all funded by Arron Banks, a multi-millionaire with interests in the British Virgin Islands who lives in a mansion once owned by the prog rock musician Mike Oldfield. Glad that’s all clear.

Anyway, Leave.EU still exists, even after Vote Leave was designated as the official Leave campaign – spending more of its time attacking the conduct, tactics and key figures of Vote Leave rather than, you know, that big EU thing they’re supposed to hate so much.

One of their main sources of frustration is Vote Leave’s refusal to have UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its representative in any of the EU debates. So, obviously, rather than pressing their case through normal channels, Leave.EU did what any respectable organisation would, and emailed the private phone numbers of senior figures at the BBC and Vote Leave out to its entire mailing list.

Which, needless to say, upset those people. Douglas Carswell sent a message asking for his number to be removed, so of course Leave.EU published that too.

No wonder the Brexiters are so opposed to international cooperation when they can’t even keep the peace on their own side. 

I'm a mole, innit.